If Websites Could Talk

By Sherman Horton
© Can Stock Photo Inc. / paulista

“Measurement is the first step that leads to control and eventually to improvement. If you can’t measure something, you can’t understand it. If you can’t understand it, you can’t control it. If you can’t control it, you can’t improve it.”

--H. James Harrington, CEO of the Harrington Institute, a global management-consulting firm

Many camps have a website, but is it providing parents, alumni, and campers what they are looking for? Is there anything the site would say if it could “talk”? With website analytics, it can talk and say plenty of things that might surprise you!

Website analytics refers to the analysis of data traffic a website receives (the measuring) and the presentation of that data in a variety of clear and insightful ways (the understanding). Analytics can answer some of the following questions:

  • How many people visit the site?
  • Where do they come from?
  • What pages do they visit?
  • How did they find the site?

Analytics can help validate that a site is providing the information and service it is expected to. The analysis can also provide a surprise in the ways visitors use the site. What is learned from the analytics can help improve a site, better engage a camp’s community, and help justify website expenditures. Thankfully, website analytics is easy to set up, easy to access, and best of all—it is free.

Because every camp is different, each camp’s website serves prospective customers (parents) and community (alumni, staff members, campers) in different ways. Here are some examples of website analytics collected from YMCA Camp Coniston’s website ( www.coniston.org ).

Site Visits
The most basic set of analytic data, the total number of site visits, is an important gauge of the effectiveness of any website, especially when tracked over time and compared to previous periods.

The example at right shows the site’s analytic “overview” for 2013 as compared to that of the previous year. The graph reveals that the site gets many more visits during the summer months when camp is in session than during the “off-season.” This can be attributed to the “picture of the day” feature that displays a recent photo several times per day of campers or programs. This item draws parents and campers (who are not at camp at the time) to the site.

The chart also has frequent peaks that—when analyzed using the available tools—show that, during the summer months visits peak on Mondays. These are the days after check-in weekends when parents are eager to see those pictures!

The statistics also show that visits are down by almost 15 percent in 2013 from 2012. In this case, the reduction in visits is attributed to the increased attention the camp community is paying to the camp’s Facebook page, especially after the summer sessions have ended. There is also some good news: the average time a visitor stays on the site is up to 3.5 minutes, a 26-percent increase over the 2012 average. Knowing these data allows the administration to respond to and improve the situation.

An effective analytic service also provides a review of visits by location.

The example to the left is a list of the Top 10 U.S. states by visits to the website. A secondary metric, the number of new visits, shows that in addition to providing the largest number of visitors, Massachusetts has the greatest percentage of new visitors as well. By clicking on each state, a further breakdown of which cities and towns are accessing the site is available.

Searches And Referrals
Understanding how users discover and access the website also provides insight.

The chart and pie graph show that almost one third of all site visits are “direct” visits, meaning the user either typed the camp’s URL directly into the browser, used a bookmark to return to the site, or clicked on a link in an email (a referral from a friend, perhaps). This indicates a high number of intentional and returning users as opposed to “first discovery” visits. Next are the searches in Google labeled “organic,” in that they resulted from the user’s own search activity. The third item is insightful because Coniston hosts its photo galleries on a separate domain, and the traffic shown here is for users returning to the main site from the galleries. Finally, the Facebook referrals reveal that 9 percent of traffic to the website comes from links or references on Facebook, which indicates that measurable interest in the camp is being generated on social media!

Mobile Users

In today’s wireless and mobile world, more and more users want to connect with camps via smartphones and tablets. Analysis of website traffic can help guide a response to this need.

This report illustrates that visits to the site from mobile and tablet devices increased from about 11 percent of all visits in 2012 to 18 percent in 2013. As a direct result of this insight, the camp is now re-designing the website to address the “small screens” of smartphone and tablet users. Analytic data also detail which mobile devices are used to access the site, which further identifies the specific devices to target.

More Insight
So what happens once a guest arrives on the website? Analytics helps here, too.

The analytics engine maps out a “behavior flow.” This presents, graphically, the pages the users visit in navigating through the website. For example, the behavior flow diagrams which pages visitors click on from the homepage, and, for the most part, they tend to return to the homepage directly afterward. This information validates that the site isn’t too multi-layered to be navigated effectively.

In addition, the website includes a special tracking code that records an “event” whenever a user clicks on a link, presses a button, or enters data in a form. This information is used to track a user’s behavior inside of a single page. The data collected are used to determine where links can be most effectively placed on a page. Also, these “event triggers” are placed on links to (PDF) downloads of application forms, health forms, etc. This technique lets the camp administration know how many of these files are in the hands of parents.

The website analytics has driven many positive changes. Because fewer users are visiting the site, but more of them are arriving directly from Facebook, the camp has expanded its presence on Facebook and other social-media sites. By understanding the average time that users stay on the site, and knowing which pages they visit, camp officials have concluded that the site is often used for reference purposes, to find a form or a key date, for example. This helps guide where the information is placed on the site and at what times of the year. Finally, the data related to mobile users have highlighted the urgent need for a major re-design of the site to properly support the types of devices people use today. The new site design is focusing on responsive layouts, touch input, and reduced content for mobile users.

How To Get Started
Most website-hosting accounts will already be set up to provide some form of analytics. Check with your service provider or web host to see what data are available and how to access them.

Some advantages of using Google Analytics, configured for the YMCA Camp Coniston website, are that the service is free, the tools and reporting capabilities are extensive, and because it is a Google service, it is easy to access and can be shared with or accessed by other users with Google accounts (that are authorized, of course).

To get started, visit www.google.com/analytics and sign up for a new account or link an existing Google or Gmail account. The site will ask for the URL address of the site you would like to track and a unique tracking ID will be assigned. The ownership of the site may need to be verified by uploading a special tracking file to the web server. The service will then provide a website code (HTML and JavaScript) that must be included on the pages to be tracked. A website developer or provider can assist with these tasks.

Once the tracking is in place and some data have been collected (give it a month or two), log in to the analytics account and start exploring the results!

Over time, the data will provide insights into ways to improve a website to better serve a camp community!

Sherman Horton is the volunteer webmaster for the YMCA Camp Coniston website. He was a Coniston camper in the 1970s and staff member in the 1980s. He married his camp sweetheart in 1990 and is now the parent of three Coniston campers. YMCA Camp Coniston is located in the Dartmouth/Lake Sunapee region of New Hampshire.